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Demand for "smart homes" in Japan strong after 2011 tsunami

According to Japan's Trade Ministry, the market for "smart homes" will be worth nearly US$34 billion (S$42.4 billion) in six years' time.

TOKYO: A stylish dining room and kitchen, a comfortable bedroom, a room with a traditional design. These are all powered by solar energy and storage batteries. According to Japan's Trade Ministry, the market for "smart homes" will be worth nearly US$34 billion (S$42.4 billion) in six years' time.

And it won't be just about simple automation anymore. "Smart homes" are now being designed to adapt more closely to the rhythm of the household, automatically detecting problems and helping homeowners control their energy use.

Sosuke Inoue, head of Aoyama Collection at Sekisui House, said: "The smart house today is just a structure. Looking ahead, we are collaborating with Honda, Toshiba, as we do not intend just to build such houses but to go beyond by linking up home appliances, cars, whatever else that forms our lifestyle to produce smart houses of the future."

Experts say demand for "smart houses" became strong after the tsunami and earthquake in March 2011. There were power blackouts not only in the devastated areas but also in the capital. To this day, residents remember all too clearly the blackouts. Hence, for many, energy efficiency has become their number one priority.

But fragmentation still plagues the industry. Products from different manufacturers use different software to run, an issue that may take years to solve. Takashi Kitamura, manager at Panasonic Center Tokyo, said: "We will need to seek collaboration with food manufacturers, courier service, distributors, a wide range of sectors (to solve the issue)."

The market is also getting increasingly crowded. Internet giants Apple and Google have announced big plans to invest in the "smart home" industry, leading some analysts to question whether Japanese firms can stay ahead of the game.

Kenji Yumoto, Vice-Chairman of Japan Research Institute, said: "They cannot survive amid harsh competition without developing new products with high value-added products or IT-related products which enable them to attract and function in houses."

And, of course, cost is still a huge barrier. For instance, a device which extracts hydrogen from gas to produce hot water - minus the carbon dioxide emissions - costs about US$16,000, even with government subsidy. 

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